The Narcotics Menace: School aims to provide balanced approach teaching: Lesley Gerard on a new strategy to deter children from drug abuse

MORNING ASSEMBLY at Haydon School, west London, begins not with morning prayers, but with a loud blast of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile. Steve Robson, the deputy head, tells the story of the guitar legend's untimely death, aged 28, to illustrate the dangers of drugs, before moving on to warn the school's 1,300 pupils about solvent abuse.

As a music fan he is well briefed on Hendrix and the drug-induced deaths of other Sixties icons, but less confident on the subjects of glue sniffing and inhaling aerosol fumes. 'Sometimes you get the feeling that the children know more than you do.'

Hayden School in Pinner draws its pupils from an affluent catchment area. In the past eight years, two pupils have been expelled for bringing illegal drugs onto the premises. Hayden believes its problems are no worse than those experienced by other schools.

But the headteacher, David Dobson, insists complacency is dangerous. 'Any headteacher who says their school has not got a problem with drugs in this day and age is being very foolish,' he said. 'When you have 1,300 pupils you have to assume some of the children will try them . . . If pupils know they can raise an issue, then that gives you a chance to talk some sense to them.'

Over the last decade Haydon has developed a clear strategy based on the theory that simply ordering children not to take drugs and threatening them with expulsion does not work. The school's approach has backing and help from the Hillingdon Drug Education Team, a group of youth workers and counsellors, funded by the local council and health authority.

Roger Sharpe, the team's manager, said: 'When a child takes drugs it is often a symptom that something else is making them unhappy. That is when we can help . . . Our view is that you have to work with the children and also educate their parents not to over-react. You have to assume that you cannot persuade every child to abstain, that some might take ecstacy. But if they do, at least you can tell them to avoid becoming dehydrated to reduce the risk. By support and counselling you try to ensure that it becomes just an episode in their lives and not a life-threatening dependency.'

At Hayden, pupils attend personal social health education classes from the age of 11. They start by discussing the health effects of smoking; in following years classes discuss drugs, alcohol and addiction.

The lessons run alongside a social education programme where drugs are also discussed and former addicts occasionally invited in to talk to pupils.

The school has started to compile a list of counselling services which children can refer to. It is also drawing up its own drugs policy with the help of parents and pupils to clarify how the subject should be taught and to review how drug-related incidents in school should be punished. Mr Foley said: 'Children are quite sensible. They weigh up the disadvantages against what they perceive to be the benefits of taking drugs. Our role is to give them something to balance it all out against. Ignorance is life-threatening.'

(Photograph omitted)